Attenborough skull mystery finally solved

It was one of the most gruesome murder puzzles in British history that stumped detectives for over 130 years.

But the riddle over the infamous slaying of Julia Martha Thomas in 1879 has finally been solved, six months after a battered skull was unearthed in David Attenborough's back garden in Richmond, south west London.

Using the latest in forensic technology, investigators yesterday confirmed at an inquest that the severed head found in October was indeed that of the God-fearing widow.

She had been murdered by her maid, Kate Webster, who was convicted of the murder in 1879 and hanged. But it was the chilling details revealed in court that captured the public's imagination and earned it the title, The Barnes Mystery. Mrs Thomas, 55, had employed 29-year-old Webster, a convicted thief and fraudster, as a servant in January 1879. But their relationship soured as Mrs Webster became increasingly angry over the maid's heavy drinking and pub-going.

On 2 March that same year, the devout Presbyterian returned from Sunday Mass when a row broke out. In a drunken rage, Webster pushed her employer down a flight of stairs before strangling the remaining life out of her. Then using a meat saw, a razor and a kitchen knife, she dismembered the body, limb by limb. To cover her tracks, Webster boiled the corpse and even fed the dripping to local children to eat, calling it pigs' lard, the inquest heard. She stuffed the rest into a wooden box which she threw into the Thames, but the head and a foot would not fit. So she buried the head in the garden and dumped the foot in a nearby allotment. Days later a box containing "a mass of white flesh" was found by Barnes Bridge, after which the mystery was named. But without a head no formal identification could ever take place.

Webster was convicted and hanged on 29 July 1879. But Ms Thomas' head was never found. The final twist came in October last year when workmen building an extension on TV naturalist Mr Attenborough's home made the grisly find as they dug his back garden.

The skull was sent to forensic officers who used radio carbon testing alongside census data to confirm the skull's true identity. After the inquest, coroner Alison Thompson ruled that Mrs Webster had died of asphyxiation and blows to the head.



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Louis van Gaal
football
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own